Supporting Children with Autism at Playtimes.

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Playtimes can be tricky for autistic children ….

  • It’s unstructured time – which some like (no demands) and others hate (don’t know what to do or how to fill the time).
  • It’s a sensory overload, – which some love because they are sensory seekers and need the movement and sensory stimulation and others hate because the sights, sounds, smells, noise, weather, movement, touch and space of a playground hurts them.
  • It’s socially demanding – which most don’t like because there’s a lot to take in, children are moving and talking and shouting and playing and coming at them from all directions.  They might not know where to start to even ask to play, and possibly no-one asks them to play.
  • The rules keep changing –  so when they thought they were playing one game, someone changes it to another,  just like that,  and they can’t keep up and are left behind, or get angry because you changed the rules and that is stressful beyond words.
  • There’s no place to escape –  some will wander, trying to find their own bit of space where they can just be on their own for a bit.  Others will invent their own worlds to escape to so the noise and mess around them can be shut out.
  • It’s scary and it’s easy to feel angry – Children are running, screaming and pushing. How do they know when to stop?  Imagine a child with autism who is frightened, because they don’t know how to stop themselves or join in without getting it wrong.  Hitting out at others is just getting them out of the way…or attempting to join in when you can’t communicate so well.
  • It’s exhausting –  even though a child with autism may look like they’re doing ok and joining in, the effort is exhausting.  You notice it when they come back into class, especially in the afternoon. Or maybe it’s their parents who find out when they go home and it all comes out.  They’ve used up all their spoons.
There are many reasons why playtimes can be difficult for children with autism.  These issues don’t go away when they get to high school; in fact, the child with autism can become more isolated and stressed over break times and no-one may notice.
It’s also important to understand that autistic children are social beings but often do things differently from others.  But this is okay as long as we can learn to communicate with each other.  Please look at this work by Dr Damian Milton called the Double Empathy Theory for more information on this.

“Whilst it is true that autistic people can struggle to process and understand the intentions of others within social interactions, when one listens to the accounts of autistic people, one could say such problems are in both directions.”     Dr Damian Milton – The Double Empathy Problem

Here are some ways you can help.

  • Build in some structure –  work with the child to find ways of structuring the playtimes.  It could be 3 x 5 minute activities.  It could be a set of game bags that they choose one to play with a friend. (Jenny Mossley’s playtime books have some great ideas about these).
  • Give them some time to be alone –  inside if necessary.  Some children need this.  Don’t force them to be sociable and interact with others if it is causing them so much stress.  They might like to just do nothing particular, a sensory calming activity, or to play with some of their favourite toys.  They might like to do certain jobs such as tidying the library or sorting out the Lego.   They might find this helps them cope better with the rest of the day.
  • Assess how anxious playtime is making the child –  This will indicate what you may need to do.  If anxiety is high, don’t ignore it.  Staying in, or letting them have a break from interaction may be the best thing you can do to help them regulate their anxiety.   For others, a TA to support them might be what they need and that makes them feel safer and happier.   For others, supporting them and the other children to play together well might be what they need.
  • Involve Sensory Movement Activities  –  Or any sensory activities that the child may use and is part of their sensory diet, if they have one.  Get other children to join in.   For example, a sensory seeking child may love to have a group of children doing a sensory circuit with them on the playground equipment.
  • Think carefully before using a TA to supervise 1:1 at playtimes –  Why are they there?  What is their role?  Is it to help the child learn skills they want to learn, or to prompt them about behaviour?  Is the TA going to be spending the time telling the child off, or modelling to other children how to interact well with the child?
  • Have a buddy group – This works more informally than a Circle of Friends.   It depends on the child and their desire to have people they can play with. Ideally a buddy group is supported through sessions where they work out what they all like to play, discuss what to do if someone doesn’t want to play and how to help each other to have an enjoyable playtime.It can work well with high school students too.
  • Have break time clubs –  Those that cover the particular interests of the children with ASC work well.  In primary schools, I have helped set up dinosaur, Mario and Lego clubs; games clubs and computer clubs.  In high schools, I’ve seen ‘Snack and Chat’ groups; Minecraft, Warhammer, craft and science clubs.
  • Teach how to be a social detective –  This helps children learn to understand what is going on, how to join in with what they would like to and learn to interact with their friends.  I do a lot of social skills teaching but it isn’t about trying to make the autistic child ‘fit in’ but is about teaching a group of children how to accept and get along with each other.   We often do this through social stories that explain and games to practice how we work together.  It helps the non-autistic children just as much because all children need to develop the skills and knowledge about how to interact successfully with a wide range of people.  That’s why listening to each other is a big part of that.

WE’ve developed a whole set of prepared resources you can buy to help you teach being a Social Detective – see here.

Part of the resistance to this level of support at playtimes comes from lack of staffing available to set up and implement/supervise these interventions.   But we also forget that we have staff, especially at lunch times that could be trained up to work with and support children with ASC.   Welfare staff are often the last to be invited to training and meetings about ASC or the children they spend an hour with every day.  Investment in welfare staff training can be very effective.


The right way to use Visual Timetables

I bet anyone whose ever had a specialist in to advise them how to support an autistic pupil has been told to use a visual timetable.   I bet it’s written down as a strategy in almost every statement or EHCP for autistic pupils.

You might have a visual timetable on your classroom wall.  You might remember to put up the schedule for the day, every day, and even to take off each picture as you finish each activity.   You might be remembering to do this for a child’s individual visual timetable.  Well done if you have.   However,  if you haven’t had them explained to you properly, it can easily seem as a lot of work for little reason…

Research shows that many autistic people struggle to understand the nuances of verbal language, processing language at the speed of a typical teacher speaking and understanding the inference of language.  Visual support enables the pace of instructions and information to be processed at their own pace and are available to go back to.   One of these is a visual timetable or schedule that sets out the routine and expectations of the day.

I’d like to help you understand the full purpose of a visual timetable.  It’s not just to let the child know what’s going on and in what order but it’s an important teaching tool. Here are some of the main teaching opportunities:

  • Developing memory and recall skills. Seeing the structure of the day can help with memory skills for children who think better in pictures than in verbal language.  The symbols can be retrieved from the ‘finished’ pocket to review the day and put things in time order.
  • Teaching organisation and independence skills.  The child should be managing their own timetable.   That means self-checking what they should be doing and where they should be, managing the taking off of the symbols and putting them in the finished pocket themselves.
  • Developing working memory skills – seeing what is on the timetable can make recalling what has been done in other lessons easier. This can be supported by a lesson schedule or subject diary.
  • Executive functions such as planning, predicting, monitoring and timing can sometimes be difficult for autistic pupils.  A visual timetable scaffolds those skills and most importantly the child can ‘self-check’ where they are up to.  If your memory is poor and your anxiety high, then a visual timetable is THERE and easy to check.  It doesn’t rely on the child having verbal skills or opportunity to ask an adult.
  • Less reliance on an adult prompt.  There can be a learned helplessness when a child gets too used to an adult verbally promoting them all the time.  This is why know how and where to check something for themselves is a good skill to have.  Especially thinking about them growing up and how there is likely to be less attention from an adult at Secondary school.
  • A visual timetable can also let the child know when their sensory breaks are or unexpected events or changes are happening.
  • You can prepare a ‘change’ symbol to support a child learning to cope with changes or unexpected events.

Some useful symbols for changes

Different visual symbols that can be used for changes

I sometimes see visual timetables as wallpaper, and by that I mean, they are pretty pictures on the wall – but then sometimes the pictures are not even that day’s schedule and the child hasn’t been taught to manage the timetable themselves.  I might be told “Oh, we tried a visual timetable but it didn’t work,” Or “They don’t need a visual timetable, they’ve grown out of it,”  but the pupil still has poor independence and organisation skills.

Visual timetables grow with the child.  They should be age and developmentally appropriate.   I have one – It’s a full term calendar on one sheet that I write in all my school visits, INSET sessions and meetings. It’s visual and I’d be very anxious (not to mention, totally lost) without it.  Diaries and lists provide a similar visual aid to my life and how it is organised (or not!).  If we want autistic pupils to be able to develop good organisation skills, a visual timetable can be a great start.  Choose the right format for the child and you will get it right.  We might start with objects of reference, use photos or symbols or colour coded words, and  the format can develop as the child does.  Sometimes teachers thing a child doesn’t need it anymore and take it away.   Then the child’s behaviour and independence can begin to deteriorate.   It is often the case that what they needed was an updated timetable rather than taking it away.  It can surprise us how much the child was relying on their visual timetable.  It is ok to have one all their lives – as they get older we teach them to self-manage their timetable more and develop their own formats if necessary.  Like we do as adults with our diaries and lists.

AND IT DOES NOT MATTER WHETHER IT IS HORIZONTAL OR VERTICAL!   Let’s dispel this myth, once and for all.  Use whatever fits into your space and what the pupil can easily use.   I have known staff who have worried about this so much because one professional said do it one way and another said do it the other way, that they didn’t actually start using the visual timetable for weeks because they were so worried about getting it wrong.

Thank you for this image from

To share an example.  Over the years I’ve worked with some pupils who were at risk of being excluded for behaviour.  A visual timetable used to show them the lessons, ‘calm or choice times’, sensory breaks and, most importantly, when home time is, has regularly (along with other strategies) made a huge impact in helping the child navigate the day, reduce stress and anxiety and therefore reduce challenging behaviours.   Honestly, it can sometimes be the pivotal strategy that makes all the difference for the child.

If you want to know more, there are lots more advice and examples in my  book ‘How to support pupils with ASC In Primary Schools’ published by LDA.

I have Widgit ‘Communicate in Print’ software which I love for not only making visual timetables but also for supporting a pupil’s writing, reading and curriculum access.  



A week in the life – Specialist Autism Teacher

Many of you will receive a visit or receive a report from a specialist teacher at some point.   Emma and I work on building relationship with our schools so that the teachers see us as a support and resource for them as well as someone who can help their pupils.  We love to encourage and help the SENCOs too,  as we understand the aspects of their job that others in the school rarely do.   That’s the benefit of the way we work with schools, regular half termly, monthly or weekly visits (depending on needs and funding) means we know the school, the children and their families and the staff – and they know us really well over time.

So what is a typical week for a Specialist Autism Teacher?

A typical week for me would consist of visits to 4 or 5 different schools.  I try to space them out so I have time to prepare any resources or activities before I go and time to write up the visit and any reports afterwards.

I work differently in primary schools than in secondary schools but I love the variety.

This week I went to one primary school for a whole day.  There are 5 pupils with ASD diagnoses and a couple more pupils who we are supporting and keeping an eye on.  So, I meet with the children and their teachers, we discuss the progress since my last visit (all recorded on their action plan) and then look at how we can move on.  We decide what we want to achieve with the child’s input and I will suggest strategies and resources where needed.  I wrote a social story with one child and he’s going to find some pictures to go with it with his teaching assistant.  With one teacher we planned how to go about explaining puberty;  I had two meetings with Y5 parents about choosing the next steps for KS3, reviewed a sensory diet and planned some communication work with another child.  The autism chat continued over lunch as I ate my sandwiches with the staff in the staffroom (they like to get all their questions in while I’m there!);  a quick catch up with the SENCO and a chat about the paperwork for an EHCP application and the day was done. Each child and their staff is left with an updated action plan (when I’ve typed them up in the next couple of days) and I will see them again next half term.

I visited 3 secondary schools this week.  I work more directly with the children with ASD themselves in groups or individually.  Most of my schools send me an update before I go so that I can go prepared with activities and resources.  I’ve done Lego Therapy, Social games, used Emotion Works to help with some difficult issues and behaviours (finding out what’s really happening) made a CAMHS referral, taught a child about their sensory system, taught some Somerset Thinking Skills and helped a child design a Liverpool Football Club mood diary (at his request!).   One school I go to weekly, another every 3 weeks and the other monthly.   Each pupil or group gets an action plan and I make what resources I can for them, so the time in my office after the visits are busy too.  I’ve spoken to teaching assistants and subject teachers and attended department meetings to ensure the best support across the school.  And, of course, I meet with parents so I build that relationship with them too.  Working for myself affords me the luxury of not having to stay at the schools till home time or for afterschool meetings, so I plan in my admin time to keep up with the paperwork (that’s the theory – I have yet to be totally on top of paperwork!)   This week I have 2 Annual Review reports and a report to support an EHCP application to write as well, so my laptop is on fire!

I’ve also done a home visit to a pupil who is school-refusing, working with them and their parents on making a plan to return to education.  This isn’t a quick-fix job.  We are doing a lot of work about anxiety and communication and through Lego and other interests we are slowly building a positive relationship.

Most weeks I do some training.  Last week I delivered a L3 Next Steps Autism course for teachers and this week I’m hosting Claire Murray who is delivering her amazing Emotion Works resources that we use all the time and that I wrote about here.   Next week I’ll be doing the second twilight INSET session for a school I visited before Christmas.

Sounds busy doesn’t it!  I’m also continually learning and developing my autism courses, liaising with Emma who is our other specialist teacher and Meriel our administrator.  I’ve written some magazine articles and this blog while my hubby is watching football on TV.   Some weeks I do something completely different or unusual and I love that.   I’ve always got ideas and plans rushing around my head.

One thing is for sure,  every week is different and the core of what we do is working with our schools and their pupils with ASD to make school better.


Reading a Social Story with a pupil.
Shared on for Spectrum Sunday blogshare

Autistic children and Group Interactions

Hilary works with us and is autistic and a maths teacher (amongst her other talents). She has a great way of explaining what being autistic is like and we often talk about the apparent anomaly between her confidence in speaking to someone 1:1 or to a whole group of students, as opposed to being in a group or party situation with lots of people to interact with. I love how she describes it….

By Hilary

On a one to one, there is, well, one interaction. When another joins in then there are 6 potential interactions, because there is each person interacting with each of the other two so that is 3 interactions, plus each person’s interaction with the other 2, when the other 2 act as one in some way, eg opinion, agreement, etc. So 6 in total.

Now, there is an easy way to work out the number of interactions for a given number of people.   If there are 3 people then we simply need to multiply 3 by 2 by 1 = 6 This is written as 3! The exclamation mark is known as a factorial sign.    So then one more person joins…now there are 4! Potential interactions which = 4 * 3 * 2 * 1 = 24   This may possibly be about my limit but mostly if I am one of the 4 people, but it’s still a big challenge because now I am feeling all the unspoken undercurrents that 24 potential interactions produces.    Throw into this several different personality types and possible tension between 2 or more of the people and it’s possible to see how a storm can quickly brew of unspoken emotions, thoughts, etc.

However, I generally hang on in there, but know I’ll pay the price with exhaustion and several recovery days where I avoid as much social interaction as possible. (Just a note to add that I do of course sometimes ‘do’ social groups with friends I know well or am comfortable with, as a trusted group of friends makes a huge difference, as does having a focus such as, having a meal with friends, and because I am already familiar with the types of interactions which happen and the whole experience is less exhausting. the better I know people in the group, the easier it is, generally.   I still don’t ‘do’ social events and social groups often though.)

Now, a fifth person comes along, and this basically explodes in my head. 5!   Potential interactions, that is 5*4*3*2*1 = 120  undercurrents which are cross-firing what is actually being said…add in a few looks, glances, smiles, frowns, tones of voice, buttings in, and there you have it,   I’m gone, looking for the kettle and a quiet corner and maybe one person I know well enough to have a nice quiet brew with or better still friends’ cat(s) who totally understand and retreated to quiet corners already.    Add one more person…and now the potential number of interactions rises exponentially… 6!    That’s 6*5*4*3*2*1 = 720 7 people, 7! = 7*720 = 5040 potential interactions.

What generally happens though, is that the limit of a useful group is probably 4, though 3 is in my opinion better still.   At 5, usually the quieter people give way to the more verbal, and melt into the background either gratefully or in some frustration.   So this curbs the actual number of interactions, but not by much due to the unspoken emotions which flow like wifi among the group.   I have come to realise that it must be an acute awareness of these ridiculous number of interactions, with equal awareness of the accompanying undercurrents that make the whole group experience feel to me as if I were being slapped in the face every nanosecond.   The huge difference between a social group of say 5 people and a group which has gathered for a specific focus on say a film or lecture or even in some sense to play some sort of game or sport, is that if there is one focus that the group has then immediately it is in reality a one to one situation – almost, with each person in the group interacting mainly on the focus, and all 5 people also acting as one person interacting with the focus.    Giving a public lecture, teaching or speaking to an audience is in reality a one to one situation, so, poses no threat.    This is why teaching, speaking is no problem, or being taught etc., but groups – where’s the kettle.

How can we help? 

Now in a classroom there are often way more than 7 people to interact with!  Often we ask children to work in groups and then expect them to know how to get on with it and work together.  For an autistic child this can be a nightmare. Not only have they the amount of interactions to attend to and switch their attention to, there is often intolerable background noise from other groups and many other sensory demands.

 In a school I often suggest that the teacher supports the autistic child to work with just one other person. In a pair, they can be much more successful in sharing ideas and the task to get it completed. You may need to teach or structure the task in a way that each child knows what their role is and what they are expected to do or produce.  Learning to listen to each other and deal with differences of opinion or ideas is a challenge in itself (for both children in the pair). Many secondary children nI work with say that school life would be much better if teachers would let them work in a pair on shared tasks, rather than making them work in a group.  Please consider what Hilary says about groups and the number of interactions when you are planning shared tasks to do in your lessons.  And make sure the person who they work with is someone who will work well with them.  Some children will get better at working in groups that are calm and well structured, others may take all their effort just to work with one other person right through to the end of their school days.  

So here for you is a visual about how you can support partner work in your classroom. (Full social story can be downloaded below)

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